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Campus Tours Veer Online

Campus Tours Veer Online

Steve Heisler

screenshot of CampusReel

The loss of in-person college tours because of the COVID-19 pandemic marks a significant blow to higher education recruitment, but virtual tools are filling some of those information gaps

As higher education marketers know, the campus tour is staggeringly effective. According to 2018 data on recruitment tactics compiled by the higher ed firm Ruffalo Noel Levitz, campus visits and open house events, which include tours, were rated as “effective” by 98-99% of the 115 non-profit universities surveyed. Unfortunately, that’s a tactic many schools are forgoing as they abide by social distancing guidance and stay-at-home orders.

But as classes themselves have gone digital, so goes the campus tour. One company, CampusReel, is recreating as much of the in-person experience as possible by way of crowdsourcing. The company built a tool that integrates with Google Maps and mobile devices to allow students, faculty or other spokespeople to upload short videos highlighting parts of a campus, and pin content to a virtual map for prospective students to discover. The online interface allows users to search all videos or poke around various lecture halls and dorms from home. The maps also include relevant information about the university, such as the cost of in-state tuition or the makeup of the student body.

Robert Carroll, co-founder of CampusReel, says his company has fielded more inquiries from schools in the past month than at any other time, and that its technology is on target to deliver 1.4 million leads this year. Marketing News spoke to Carroll about the details that make a virtual tour as close to the real thing as possible and what areas of campus to include.


Q: What is the most important thing to remember when putting together a virtual version of an on-campus tour?

A: You have to put your students first. When somebody visits the college campus, it’s not the director of admissions that gives the walking tour, it’s always a current student. And it’s very important to parents and their children that they’re getting time one on one, or at least one on 10 with a current student where they can ask questions and get answers—and really try to get a little bit deeper into what’s going on on campus.

Content made by students is more compelling. It’s more authentic. And you can create it at a much faster rate because you can crowdsource it. It also more effectively captures one of the most important elements of an in-person visit, which is [those] people and community elements. People can go on Google Images and see the quad and the dorms. What people are really trying to figure out [in person] is, “Can I see myself among [the students]?” Trying to digitize as many of those personas as possible is really key. Trying to create content from international students, domestic students, student athletes, chemistry, English, everything.

Q: What parts of your virtual tours are the most popular?

A: Residence halls [and] dorm tours are far and away—like literally 10 times more popular than any other piece of content on the platform. There’s something just inherently intriguing about, “Where am I going to be living when I get here?” Everyone decorates their dorm rooms, and you’re going to have a roommate and it’s going to really be kind of the center of your non-educational experience. That type of content is much more [engaging] than videos of a lecture hall.

Q: No one is completely sure what the fall semester is going to look like, particularly whether students will be living on campus. Are there concerns with showing off the dorms if they won’t be used?

A: They should digitize everything. I don’t think any of this is mutually exclusive—I don’t think you should do dorms and not something else. It’s about trying to capture every part of that experience. But also, there are a lot of unknowns come September and October. At the end of the day, most of these parents and students who are making decisions right now are operating under the assumption that even if [the student] doesn’t arrive on campus in September, at some point over the next four years it’s going to be where [they] call home. Maybe it’s a year from now, maybe it’s two years from now, but they are joining that residential community.

What we found is that it really resonates with users, so I would encourage them to create content around that. And you can put in a little caveat if it makes them feel comfortable: “We’re still waiting to see what the situation is going to be like in September, but if we’re lucky enough to have you on campus, you’re going to be living in an amazing dormitory.” The content that they create now can have a long lifecycle. If they have some great dorm room tours, I think it will go a long way, not just during COVID, but also after.

Q: Where do virtual campus tours overlap with other marketing channels such as social media and paid advertising?

A: It’s supplementary to all of them. Virtual tours are also a very effective lead-generation tool. If you’re doing paid traffic or direct mailing, social media advertising or campaigning, what you really want to do is turn those clicks into inquiries that can get put into your CRM. And virtual tours, from what we found, are probably the single most effective way to do that in the entire industry.

The second piece of this whole equation is: Let’s say you have the content, you have the virtual tour, then what you want to do is increase the reach and impact of every asset that you generate. So how can you take those marketing materials and put them everywhere? Because there’s kids researching schools; they might be on any one of a number of search engines. How can you make sure that you’re maximizing the reach of everything you create? Paid traffic can help do that, direct mailing can help bring awareness to it.

Screenshot via CampusReel website.

Steve Heisler served as staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at